I was in New York City yesterday. As part of my visit, I made sure to see the exhibit at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts that focuses on Lou Reed’s life and career. It’s titled “Caught Between the Twisted Stars” after a line from a poem that he wrote. I’ve wanted to see the exhibit ever since I saw a headline about it in the New York Times months ago. This was my opportunity to literally immerse myself in learning about an incredibly influential artist and musician.
The exhibit has prominent disclaimers that it is for mature audiences only, and that the opinions expressed may be outdated or offensive. I thought this was nice; rather than being preachy, it was an acknowledgment of time passing. Perhaps this was silly, but as soon as I even saw the row of exhibit guides, I got excited. I got to “be Clara” as a friend said: I went to the exhibit alone and could take my time in soaking up a part of music history.
“Caught Between the Twisted Stars” begins with a video of Lou Reed reciting the poem from which the exhibit gets its title. There’s also a brief biography before there are photos and promotional materials for The Velvet Underground. The exhibit wasn’t fully chronological: it kind of jumps back and forth through time. Each part of the exhibit seemed to be organized more conceptually than anything else. Photos and lyrics from The Velvet Underground are mixed with demo tapes from Lou Reed’s folk era. Later, the exhibit delves into his poetry: it talks about an influential professor from when he was at Syracuse; there are copies of his published poems; and a few handwritten lyric sheets. (Is it just me, or do all artists seem to have bad handwriting?)
I liked the way the exhibit concluded. It had a bookshelf behind plexiglass with letters from Jimmy Page and Paul McCartney as well as old 45s; the conceit appeared to be that it was part of his house. Fanzines were laid out on a desk. Old yearbooks from 1958 were open to pictures of Lou Reed in his first band, The Jades. (This, of course, prompted me to look up those recordings. I’ll talk more about that in my Monthly Obsessions post for September.)
After that, there was a wall of TVs with interviews. My favorite was one that appeared to be from the 1990s. He talked about what rock ‘n roll feels like and gestured to his heart. And that made me so happy because that’s what I feel, too.
Cold War Kids have a band name that (to me at least) instantly brings to mind slouchy Converse and a disaffected vibe. I’m suddenly looking at the world through ’00s eyes, which means that it’s, you guessed it, time for a Throwback Thursday. Cold War Kids weren’t on heavy rotation for me back then until I watched Gossip Girl. Look: I freely admit my spectrum of high-low pop culture experience. And besides, the show, aside from its incredibly trashy viral marketing campaign and bad plot lines, really did have great music.
The song kicks off with slow and jangly guitar. Honestly, I had forgotten how deep “Hang Me Up to Dry” sounds, if that makes sense: the vocals are pitched low and, paired with the rhythm section, move only a little bit faster than molasses. It’s a little bit like “Float On” by Modest Mouse. Things shift with the chorus. Here, our lead singer’s voice gets a higher pitch. Now it’s reminiscent of Foster the People, if Foster the People wasn’t obscured by noisy, Passion Pit-esque punches of brilliant sound. That whole cluster of bands feels borrowed from each other; then again, that’s what music is, isn’t it? Cold War Kids, though, is distinct in that their songs have a looser feel, and this is particularly evident on “Hang Me Up to Dry.” The drums keep us steady, but as the song progresses, discordant piano gets sprinkled in. Towards the end, there’s an odd noise like a bicycle wheel spinning backwards.
Man, relistening to this song for this post made me remember how much I like this song. It’s a true jam and the laundry metaphor is very clever. I scrolled through the YouTube comments briefly, which is usually a mistake, but here it was mostly people reminiscing about their own connections to the song. Do you remember “Hang Me Up to Dry”? If so, what are your memories of hearing it?
It was quite the busy month for me in terms of songs on repeat. I started things off with a major throwback: I hadn’t listened to Nicki Minaj in years. Pink Friday was a big album when it came out, and it will always make me think of college. I still haven’t heard “Super Freaky Girl,” and I don’t think I will; Nicki has fallen off my radar recently. Her early songs, however, as the kids say, “slap.” I guess I needed a motivation boost because the two songs of hers that I was listening to are major brags.
We’ve also got JAMC on there, because of course. “Sometimes Always” was a cover that I talked about this month. But the other songs on the list are, by and large, throwbacks as well, primarily to the ’80s and ’90s. Prince came on rotation, and “On the Dark Side” was a newer discovery.
“Spanish Sahara” is one of those iykyk songs: Misfits, anyone? Beach House was part of my early “indie” music tastes, bundled in with Cults and Sleigh Bells.
The newest song on the playlist is “American Teenager” by Ethel Cain. Wow. Sweeping Americana and a chorus that makes you want to pump your fist and yell along. Her voice has an amazing poignancy. I listened to this one over and over and over this month.
I’m honestly surprised that I haven’t written about this song, and particularly this cover, before. It’s really what started my obsession with the Mary Chain. I heard “Worry About It Later” by Brakes on an MTV show, then had Touchdown, its album, on repeat for months afterwards. From there, I dove into Brakes’ back catalogue. Give Blood isn’t my favorite of theirs, but “Sometimes Always” was the standout. I thought that it was an original until I did more research. And, well, the rest is history: I’m pretty much always listening to at least one Mary Chain song, I’ve been to three of their concerts, I know most of their releases, I’ve listened to interviews, etc., etc. As a friend of mine says, it’s on brand for me that my favorite band is an obscure indie rock outfit from the ’80s.
What’s interesting about the Brakes version is that it’s gender-flipped. The Pipettes provide Hope Sandoval’s vocals, but Eamon Hamilton is the main narrator. Instead of “you sure are lucky son/lucky son of a gun,” we get: “you sure are lucky girl/luckiest in the world.” That line spoke to me somehow when I was listening to this song over and over in my early college years. Although Brakes largely follows the acoustic sound of Stoned and Dethroned in their cover, they offer a punk-tinged edge on the bridge. There, the guitar is just a little bit louder and sharper. (All of Give Blood, really, is punk: see the short, blistering “Cheney” for an example. Eamon’s sneering accent is the perfect finishing touch.)
With these two songs, I can’t really pick a favorite. The cover is special to me for what it started; the original is special to me just because I love the Mary Chain. Below, as usual, are both.
I read a great article in Pitchfork about So by Peter Gabriel; they’ve been revisiting “significant albums of the past” recently. I’ve been listening “In Your Eyes” on repeat for the past several days, so the timing was perfect. Speaking of perfect timing: I’ve been itching to do another Covers Corner, and I’ve had this one on the list for a while.
The reason I wanted to, er, cover this cover is because I like “Sledgehammer” and I think that Harry Styles is a unique choice to do it. He’s been leaning into the artsy, gender bending side of music of late. “Sledgehammer” isn’t really that: it’s bluntly sexual and masculine. But Harry takes it on well. His voice actually sounds a lot like Peter Gabriel’s, which is impressive. Besides, the benefit of a cover is that oftentimes you can hear the lyrics more clearly. This is definitely the case here. Harry enunciates the lyrics without sounding forced or robotic. It helps me get more out of the song. Another aspect of Harry’s cover that I really like is that the backup singers stand out a lot more. They carry the chorus and call-and-response in a way that’s drowned out in the original.
What Harry maintains from the original is a sense of joy and even play. (I mean, as I mentioned in a previous Monthly Obsessions post, the metaphors in the lyrics can get a little ridiculous.) His voice is light and smooth; it’s like he’s singing with a straight face despite lines like “I will be your honey bee.” There’s seduction there. He manages to make the song subtle. It doesn’t hurt that the cover lacks the heavier drums that Peter Gabriel’s version has.
In terms of “which is better,” I’m leaning towards the original, actually: maybe that’s because it’s the one I heard first, or because I, too, enjoy silly come-ons made extra obvious. But as usual, I’m leaving both below; let me know which one you like! (I am, as usual, loathe to include YouTube links, but the Harry Styles version isn’t available on Spotify.)
Welcome to another retrospective! “Good Intentions” was on repeat for me a lot early in the pandemic. Listening to it now feels like a weird sort of reclaiming. It’s like I’m taping over the old memories. Same for “Worried About You” – I can’t remember when I last had this on repeat; it might’ve been early in the pandemic as well. Either way, the new listening has taken on a different context. I really like how it starts out so softly: we see a different part of Mick’s range, especially on the “go up in smoke” line. The “kuh” stands out.
“On the Wall” is probably pretty obvious. When am I not listening to the Mary Chain? I discussed this song in one of my Covers Corner posts. I haven’t listened to the cover version in a while. I’m just really diving into the original. The synthesizers are a hallmark of the Darklands and Automatic era.
A recurring theme this month was isolated drum tracks. Unfortunately, none of them are on Spotify that I can find, so you’ll have to settle for one of the originals that I was listening to. “Fool in the Rain” is a favorite of mine in the Led Zeppelin catalogue. The line “Well there’s a light in your eye that keeps shining/Like a star that can’t wait for the night” is so lovely to me and gets stuck in my head a lot.
One of the hallmarks of summer for me is listening to surf rock. I wasn’t exposed much to the genre as a child, unless you count the Beach Boys. Full disclosure: although they are often classified that way, I don’t entirely think of the Beach Boys as surf rock because their sound tends to be softer and veer into the pop realm.
I want to dive into (heh) surf rock today with an abbreviated history lesson. It’s straight out of the culture of Southern California. That’s why you’ll often hear lyrics about surfing and sunny days, beach babes and boardwalks. Surf rock is also very heavy on the reverb. Think “Miserlou” by Dick Dale or “Wipe Out” by The Surfaris. That’s why, even though surf rock does still linger today, the genre feels very vintage to me. Reverb guitar was huge in the ’60s, which was when surf rock hit its peak.
Surf rock’s musical descendants include another California creation known as pop-punk. Like surf rock, pop-punk is enmeshed in a culture. This time, its origins overlap with California’s skateboarding scene. (More details about pop-punk and the wild vocals that live there can be found here.)
Grab your sunglasses and listen to some of my favorite surf rock songs below:
Like many of the songs in my Throwback Thursday series, I think of this one as suspended in amber. I haven’t listened to it in years, and unlike other mid-’00s hits, it doesn’t seem to appear on nostalgia playlists.
Speaking of nostalgia playlists, the last time I remember hearing it is at an ’80s throwback party in a bar in 2015. Talk about suspended in amber. But it’s telling, too, because even though this song is obviously not from the ’80s, its beat echoes The Human League or Eurythmics with its tight, controlled electronics. This sound would later blur out into the static of bands like The Midnight and ~aesthetic YouTube channels.
Because I hadn’t listened to this song in so long, I actually had to look up the lyrics. “Bulletproof” is a neat kiss-off without complicated metaphors. I like the line “Do your dirty words/Come out to play when you are hurt?” It’s simple and direct: “All you do is fill me up with doubt.”
Sometimes simple is really all you need: no frills or fancy production tricks, just androgyny and self-confidence.
This month was a blend of throwbacks and dance songs, looking forward and looking back. With “Rosanna” and “Inside Your Skin,” I visited the ’80s. I was looking up “obscure ’80s songs” for another project I’m working on, and that song by The Outfield came up. They’re best known for “Your Love,” of course, but I really like “Inside Your Skin.” It has a lovely echo and the lyrics are romantic and yearning. “Rosanna” is definitely not an obscure ’80s song; I just love the drums.
“Cold Heart” came out of the early days of the pandemic, but I didn’t discover it until recently. I think the samples of “Rocket Man” are so clever. “Always” is another dance song. It has the distorted pulse that appears in lots of songs from channels like MrSuicideSheep and Chill Nation.
I read about Arcade Fire’s new album WE in a magazine and, being the ’00s girl that I am, I had to check it out. “Age of Anxiety I” is the standout there for me. It captures the ennui that Arcade Fire has perfected.
Speaking of ennui, I closed out the month by listening to “The Freshmen” on repeat. I had that song on repeat when I was a freshmen, so it was interesting to revisit it. Now that enough time has passed, I really don’t feel the same angst that I was overwhelmed with when I first listened to it so often. I can appreciate the song for what it is, and it actually is a really good song. The blend of drums and rough guitar are an echo of Nirvana.
I! Love! Reading! About! Music! History! It’s just who I am as a person. And I especially love reading about music history when it’s done with as much warmth and sensitivity as Gerrick Kennedy’s biography of Whitney Houston, Didn’t We Almost Have it All. As soon as he started talking about his relationship to music (not just Houston’s), I knew I’d enjoy the book. I feel the exact same way: music can bring joy and an escape. And the book is extremely approachable, too; it’s written in a casual tone. (Sometimes too casual – there were moments when the repeated use of “shit” was jarring.)
I was particularly compelled to pick up Whitney’s story because it’s actually not one I know a lot about. I’m from the era just after her star, so brilliant, bright, and game-changing, had begun to fade. I do, of course, know her big songs – don’t we all? As Kennedy points out, it’s wild that just four songs made her a global superstar.
Kennedy writes, “Because Whitney was engineered for pop audiences there was this expectation that she needed to be all things to all people…” (p. 103) Trite as it may seem, it was this pressure that drove her to self-destruction. In Didn’t We Almost Have it All, Whitney emerges as both a cautionary tale and a tragic figure rather than the media punchline she became.
The reviews of Whitney’s early albums were fascinating to read (p. 91). They were called “disappointing” and over-produced. It reminded me of how Led Zeppelin was panned by Rolling Stone back in the day, and now they’re falling over themselves to label Jimmy Page the greatest guitarist of all time.
My rating? 4/5 stars. The book got repetitive after a while, and there were several sentences, sometimes whole paragraphs, that were confusingly worded. That said, Kennedy deals with Whitney’s demons using the grace and delicacy that they deserve, and definitely didn’t get throughout her career. And the ending of the book made me tear up. In the moment, the media is so confident to cast public figures aside, only to “learn its lesson” years, or even several decades, after the fact. It’s a vicious cycle.